Who wants to live forever?”, Freddie Mercury sang rhetorically in 1986. The lyrics — in fact penned by Brian May — were written for the cult film Highlander, framing the scene in which the immortal, eponymous hero witnesses his wife dying of old age. The film concludes with the Highlander choosing mortality as part of “The Prize” he receives for being the last immortal alive. The trope is an old one. In philosophy, it is known best from Bernard Williams’ 1973 article “The Makropulos Case”, named after Karel Čapek’s comedy Věc Makropulos. In the original play, and the subsequent Leoš Janáčekopera, the perpetually youthful heroine, Elia Makropulos, decides to stop drinking her life potion, thereby choosing natural death over renewing her life for another 300 years of apathy and cynical futility.
Good for her. But why do so many otherwise good philosophers take this fiction to constitute an argument against immortality? Wouldn’t it be great if, like Makropoulos and Highlander, we at least had the option of living forever if we so wished, thereby rendering the very notion of a midlife crisis incoherent? The answer hangs on important details about eternal life, which are largely overlooked in the literature: would our pets and human loved ones be immortal too? Could student debt be spread across a couple of millennia? At what age does one get to retire? Will we still be in lockdown? And will there be robots to do the dishes?
There is an interminable series of arguments against immortality, which are as unconvincing as they are condescending. Among the worst are those found in Lucretius, who claims that eternal life would become tedious to the point of being unbearable (not unlike arguments against immortality themselves). Lucretius argues that life is like a banquet that we must leave at the right time, after we have enjoyed a full meal, but before we end up drinking and eating to the point of physical and mental regret. OK. But can’t I get a doggy bag? And how about breakfast the next morning?
In the final episode of The Good Place (spoiler alert), the characters in heaven have become so bored that nothing interests them any longer, and their memories begin to fade. Tellingly, the characters have become dumber instead of smarter. Perhaps this is because they don’t seem to have spent their time helping people, learning new languages or instruments, listening to Vic Chesnutt, reading George Elliot, or catching up on The Philosophers’ Magazine back-issues. Come to think of it, how is one ever to catch up on Nicholas Rescher books and Theo Angelopoulos films unless one has eternity and a day to do so?
Another surprisingly enduring argument is Lucretius’ appeal to the symmetry revealed by the “mirror of time”, namely that there already existed an eternity in which we weren’t alive, that is, before we were born. This is somehow meant to be calming (!) but nothing fills me with more dread, anxiety, and horror than the thought that there was, in the past, a time at which I didn’t exist. Admittedly, I’m not dying to have lived at any time before toothpaste, but I would be willing to trade 2020 for most years.
A third objection is the claim that if we were immortal, then our lives would be meaningless. How absurd! Why think that life only acquires its meaning because it is limited? Nobody thinks this about anything else. While scarcity can increase the monetary value of something, it would be wrong to think that a vinyl record sounds better if you press fewer copies of it. That said, Albert Camus surely goes too far in the other direction in claiming that death renders life meaningless. The question of mortality has little to do with that of the meaning of life. This is because we do not even know what it would be for life in general to either have or lack meaning. By contrast, the meaning that one finds in one’s own life is indeed related to what one takes one’s lifespan to be. There is no reason to think, however, that immortality would reduce — let alone remove — such meaning from our lives.
We are told that the wise person has no reason to fear death. But it is a myth that those of us who are against mortality have a fear of death. Death is not something to be feared but to be loathed — like mouse wine or Ed Sheeran’s back catalogue. It is only reasonable to keep wanting to postpone the arrival of one’s as one does any other deadline (the clue’s in the name, kids). But unlike an unwanted house guest, it’s no good trying to get Death’s visit over and done with. Some say that it is the experience of dying and not our being dead (which is no experience at all) that is the problem. Indeed, as Thomas Nagel put it (in a line so perfect that Julian Barnes gave it to Christopher Lloyd, the narrator of his novel Metroland): “I wouldn’t mind Dying at all, I thought, as long as I didn’t end up Dead”.
Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever?” gained a new poignancy following Freddie Mercury’s own death five years later. The song is now one of the top five tunes that Britons voted to have played at their funeral, just after “Always Look on The Bright Side of Life” and “Stairway to Heaven”. Europeans as a whole, however, voted for a different Queen song as their funereal number one: the defiant “The Show Must Go On”, written in the face of Freddie Mercury’s own impending death. Indeed, it must, even though we know the score.